The Pittsburgh Penguins Could Challenge the Washington Capitals for Eastern Supremacy

Phil Kessel has 11 points in his last six games for the Penguins, winners of 12 of their last 13.Phil Kessel has 11 points in his last six games for the Penguins, winners of 12 of their last 13.

There has been no team more dominant over the past two weeks than the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The talk all year has been about the Washington Capitals running away with the Eastern Conference. They ran away and hid with in the regular-season, but with the Penguins’ recent tear, the playoffs might be a different story.

Eternal underachievers in the postseason, the Capitals need to win now or it may be never. The Penguins nearly suffered a major collapse last year, squeaking into the playoffs before getting promptly knocked out by the New York Rangers in the first round. But Pittsburgh is white-hot of late, having won 12 of 13 to put themselves in prime position to earn home-ice advantage in a likely playoff rematch with the Rangers.

The Caps have failed to get past the second round since reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998, always losing in the first or second round. That includes three postseason series losses to Pittsburgh, most recently in 2009 when Pittsburgh went on to win it all. Should these teams — who will likely end up 1-2 in terms of total points — meet, it will be in the second round, not the conference finals. And if momentum holds serve, Washington could be in trouble.

When Mike Johnston was fired on December 12, things went south quickly. Pittsburgh lost four straight, and it was fair to question whether they would even crack the eight-team playoff field in 2016. Fast forward almost four months, and here are the Pens, on track for the second-best record in the conference. Not only are they winning games, they are flattening teams.

In their 12 wins over this 13-game span, the Pens have scored 54 goals, an average of 4.5. Through Monday, they were third in the NHL with 2.92 goals per game, and led all of hockey with 33.4 shots per game. What may be just as impressive is their defense; Pittsburgh was giving up the sixth-fewest goals per game (2.41) and was ranked seventh in penalty-kill percentage (83.7). This in the indefinite absence of star goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who is dealing with his second concussion of the season. Rookie Matt Murray has stepped up in a big way, allowing just two goals in his last two contests.

Both Washington and Pittsburgh are loaded with offensive star power, but it’s been the Penguins’ that has shone brightest of late. Sidney Crosby is third in the league with 82 points, and has tallied at least one in 18 of his last 19 games. First-year Penguin Phil Kessel is on fire, with 11 points in his last six outings. And Patric Hornqvist has scored a goal in each of his last three games. And all of this has been without Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, and Olli Maatta in the lineup.

With such a sizable lead almost from the get-go, the Capitals have been in cruise control for a while. All eyes will be on them in the playoffs to see if they can finally get over the hump. For a while, it didn’t look like the competition in the East would be all that stiff outside of maybe the New York Rangers, another playoff nemesis of the Caps. But suddenly, here are the Penguins, looking like world-beaters even playing without a full deck.

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